GREEN BAY, Wis. -- These exchanges are usually pretty routine. Young, anonymous rookies churn out the sports cliches about opportunity and helping the team win.
The questions roll on predictably as well. So, this was asked of undrafted rookie free-agent receiver Shaky Smithson: What was the key to leading the NCAA in punt return yardage?
"I'm from Baltimore and there's nothing harder than growing up in Baltimore," replied Smithson, a fan favorite for two seasons at Utah.
"I have that mind-set that there's nothing that can kill you on the field. So you just concentrate on the ball."
Here's the story behind that statement:
Smithson surviving the poisonous tentacles of inner city life. And taking guardianship of his brother to save him, too. Meeting a Green Bay Super Bowl champion who is now his mentor. And turning down a chance to play at home because he liked Green Bay -- the town as much as the team.
Smithson insists he's good enough to earn a spot with the defending Super Bowl champion Packers because he has spent his entire life preparing for it.
"I didn't want to go back home. I knew where I wanted to go," said Smithson. "I love it here. And being here is not going to be a challenge because I know my talent. I know I can help this team."
With a declining population now around 620,000, Baltimore doesn't get the attention of New York, Washington, D.C., Detroit or Los Angeles.
But Smithson might as well have grown up in a war zone.
"You can be waiting at a bus stop at 9 o'clock and get a gun put to your head," said Smithson. "I know a lot of people that are dead and gone right now."
Rodney Coffield is a police officer and was Smithson's high school basketball coach. Born and raised in Baltimore, he calls home desolate and oppressed. The city comes close to breaking his spirit sometimes.
"From the moment these kids come out of the womb, they're just about done; they don't have a chance," he said.
He tried to give them one anyway by coaching high school basketball. In 18 years, he estimates maybe 40 percent of his players are doing well.
"And by doing well, I don't mean they went on to play college basketball or the NBA," said Coffield. "They are working; they have families."
The rest are lost. He's taken arrested men to jail only to see one of his own players already there.
"It's disheartening. This city gets them and we're never able to get a hold of them again," said Coffield. "That's really disturbing."
The only thing that keeps him and his wife from giving up is knowing that he has stressed right from wrong, but all the kids won't be saved.
Antonio Freeman knows East Baltimore well. He grew up there too, about 15 city blocks from Smithson's childhood home.
"That is a rough part of town," said Freeman.
Drive by shootings. Abandoned buildings. The burden of poverty passed down the generations. Jobless, homeless and rudderless men and women. Teenage dropouts. No one walks down East Monument Street without glancing around with anxiety. HBO filmed a TV show, "The Wire," on location in this neighborhood.
Freeman says the drugs -- not just the using, the selling -- have destroyed the neighborhood.
"Typical city life: guys want to find a quick way to get out," said Freeman. "For the young, drugs is that outlet. You make a lot of money real quick. Kids see someone on the corner, selling drugs, and they like the car they're driving, the tennis shoes they have, or their ability to give out money to the neighborhood.
"When you're on the streets making a couple hundred bucks a day, that directly leads to missing school."
Before Freeman became a Green Bay Packers receiver, before he won a Super Bowl, he was a survivor of East Baltimore, or, known to locals, as Little Beirut.
"My friends sold on the corner, wore nice shoes. But I had two working parents at home," said Freeman. "All I had to do was go to school, get good grades and respect my elders. There was no need for me to sell drugs. And my dad was not afraid to kick my ass."
Freeman still goes to the barbershop to check in. He often visits the schools. He begs the kids to forget the drugs; school is their way out.
About 13 years ago, he attended a youth football banquet and vaguely remembers a 10-year-old, Shaky Smithson, who was won the most valuable player award.
"I always won MVP awards," said Smithson, grinning.
They would meet again later. Freeman was watching kids practice and this fearless receiver was incredible. Who is that guy?
"That's Shaky, you know Shaky!"
With a face made for camera close-ups, HBO filmed a documentary, "Hard Times at Douglass High," with Smithson as the star point guard slashing his way through defenses.
That's how he got the nickname Shaky, with all those moves he had to create to get by people because he was smaller. His birth name is Antoine.
The documentary was a modern tale of the 1994 Hoop Dreams out of Chicago. Shaky became a Baltimore celebrity.
Freeman doesn't do this often, but he gave Shaky his phone number. Call at any hour, for any reason.
"Because chances are whatever you're going through, I went through too," Freeman said. He found a reason to hope again in Shaky Smithson.
Smithson excelled in basketball and football in high school and took his skills to East Los Angeles College to play football. The NCAA Division I schools -- like USC -- came calling, but Smithson had enough of the big-city life.
"For a kid from Baltimore, to go all the way to Utah . . . the kid really wanted to get away," said Freeman. "I knew this kid was serious."
Smithson said he never did any of the drug selling and school skipping. Seeing him leave was hard on Coffield, because he really wanted to watch him play college football. But Baltimore probably wouldn't have been good for Shaky, he said.
"Seeing that stuff every day in Baltimore, that's not what I wanted to do," said Smithson. "And that's not who I wanted to be."
So he went to Salt Lake City. Maybe it's the tourism for all the skiing, or the hospitality from hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics, but everyone here is friendly, said Utah receivers coach Aaron Roderick.
Smithson was all in. He would join a great program, and he could bring his teen brother, Anthony "Fish" Smithson with him.
Shaky said his parents, Lori and Tony Smithson, along with grandparents, aunts and uncles and a half brother, kept watch over the youngest members of the Smithson family: Tamicka, Toni, Briana, Brittany, Antonio and Anthony. But in 2009, Smithson told USA Today that Tony, while supportive, lost his job as a construction worker and was in and out of prison.
"He is a good man who did some bad things in society's eyes," Smithson told USA Today.
It was Anthony, the math whiz and 14 at the time, who caused Shaky to worry. He didn't want his brother going through the difficult teenage years in that environment.
Shaky brought Anthony to Utah by legally adopting him. Shaky was just 21. They got an apartment together and survived financially with Shaky's football scholarship and the royalties from the HBO documentary.
The Salt Lake City community, churches and youth programs also helped them, after getting special approval from the NCAA.
Shaky paid the bills, asked Anthony to clean his room and led the nation in punt return average (19.1) and punt return yards (572). He has the build of an NFL player (5 foot 11, 202 pounds) and great ball skills. His hands are huge. He was sure he'd get drafted.
But he didn't .
Maybe it was because he didn't run 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash . Maybe it was because he had just 25 catches for 383 yards as a senior.
"He knew that was best for the team and bought in, no ego," said Roderick.
But Chicago, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Kansas City welcomed him as a free agent. So did the Baltimore Ravens. Smithson even has good friends who signed with the Ravens: receivers LaQuan Williams and David Reed and running back Walter Sanders.
But he chose Green Bay, which needs another talented receiver about as much as it needs a new brand of beer. He picked the toughest roster in the whole NFL to make.
Smithson joined the Packers for this opening week of camp without any benefit of off-season workouts due to the lockout.
With one stunning catch after another, Smithson has stood out in Green Bay. And when there's been a drop, he's made a grab a play later. How else can he make this club?
"Don't count bodies," Freeman told Smithson at practice last week. "You're auditioning not just for the Packers but all 32 teams in the league."
But Smithson can't think that way right now.
All Smithson needs is a shot.
That's what happened at Utah, after all, with the famous, fearless punt return.
In the 2010 season opener, Smithson fumbled away a catch in the first quarter and Pittsburgh used the turnover to score. Later, he fumbled a punt.
"Coach Kyle Whittingham yanked him," said Roderick. "He had such high hopes. Starting receiver, starting returner, senior year and his family was there. I don't think his mom had seen play in college before that game. He was crushed."
With no NFL or Major League Baseball teams in Salt Lake City, college football is king, and you're either a BYU or Utah fan -- never both. Smithson got ripped to shreds on the radio and on the Internet for his performance against Pittsburgh.
The next week the Utah staff decided to stick with Smithson.
He had a 55-yard touchdown reception against UNLV, but it was his punt return that won everyone over. He caught the ball and froze, making the defense think it was a fair catch.
"Run! Run! Everyone on the sideline was screaming," said Roderick.
Smithson let the tacklers get so close he could see the whites of their eyes. Then he got a most fortunate block. He broke to the right; he was supposed to go left; his blockers were so confused. Then he darted left and raced up the sideline for a 77-yard touchdown.
He did it again the next week and again after that until teams started kicking away for him.
In Green Bay, Smithson sounds tired when he calls family and friends back home. He's always studying, training, practicing or rehabilitating.
But Freeman sees a player in practice who isn't thinking too much. He's not asking for the plays in the huddle. These are all good signs of a receiver who knows what he is doing. Signs of hope.
"Coming from Baltimore, being battle tested, he's ready -- whatever his fate holds for him," said Freeman.